Understanding Sexual Assault

What Is Sexual Assault and Why Don't People Report It?

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As of the fall of 2016, the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) defines sexual assault as:

A wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. Sexual assault also includes verbal threats.

Rape, which is defined as forced oral, vaginal, or anal penetration, is categorized as a separate crime for legal and statistical reasons. So is attempted rape. However, in most popular discussions, rape and attempted rape are considered as a subcategory of sexual assaults. They all involve sexual contact without consent.

In 2014, the most recent year that the U.S. has collected reporting statistics, 284,350 individuals reported a rape or sexual assault to the police. Over one million more reported an episode of domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Those numbers are unquestionably much lower than the actual numbers of attacks. In 2014, the BJS estimated that only around one third of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police.

Although the majority of sexual assault survivors are women, men are also at risk of experiencing sexual assault. The BJS estimates that between 1992-2000, 11 percent of sexual assaults were experienced by men, along with 9 percent of attempted and 6 percent of completed rapes. Around the world, researchers estimate that 20 percent of women and 4 percent of men will be the victims of an attempted or completed rape.

Why People Don't Report Assaults

Research suggest that the vast majority of people who experience a sexual assault never report it to any formal agency. Why? There are a number of factors that keep people from reporting. These include:

  1. Stigma and Blame. Some survivors are afraid they'll be blamed for their own assault. ("You shouldn't have been drinking." "Why did you think going out alone was a good idea?") These messages can come from well meaning friends and family. They can also originate from healthcare providers, law enforcement personnel, or the justice system.
    1. Stigma is particularly a concern for male survivors of assault. They may be afraid of being seen as weak or having their sexual orientation questioned. The assumptions of rape culture also dictate that men should want sex all the time. As such, a man who has been assaulted risks being considered "not manly enough." That can feel like a second attack, following on the assault.
  2. Not Seeing the Point. Many survivors don't see a purpose to reporting. The justice system does not have a consistent record of effectively punishing sexual predators. As such, survivors may see reporting as something that risks exposing them to judgement without much of an upside. They may not want to relive their experience over and over again, particularly if they doubt the likelihood of justice.
  1. Shame. Sometimes survivors are embarrassed or ashamed of what has happened to them. They are afraid to talk about the experience, even with close friends. It can take time to get past, and some people never do. Survivors may also be concerned that the justice system may consider what happened to them to be "no big deal." That can lead to self blame and hiding.
  2. Concerns About Privacy. Survivors may be more concerned about preserving their privacy than seeing out legal intervention. Becoming known as someone who has experienced an assault can be traumatic in and of itself. Privacy may be a particularly intense concern for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender survivors. Transgender individuals also have disproportionately high rates of sexual assault compared to their cisgender counterparts.

There are two take home messages from this. The first is that the Bureau of Justice Statistics information about the number of sexual assaults each year is almost certainly much lower than the actual number of assaults. The second is that reporting is extremely difficult.

If someone comes to talk to you about a sexual assault, listen, be kind, and provide emotional support. Don't tell them that they have to go to the police or hospital, but support them if they want to. Don't make the conversation about yourself or look for reasons that the assault happened. Let the survivor lead the discussion and set the agenda. There is no one right path for dealing with an assault. 

Psychological Effects of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault have been shown to have significant long term effects on a person's health and well-being. Not all survivors will experience negative consequences, but common problems that appear in the aftermath of a sexual assault include:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD
  • Substance Abuse, often as a consequence of PTSD or a way of coping with symptoms. 
  • Generalized Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Depression
  • Difficulties with sexual functioning, including giving up sex for short or long periods of time
  • Social Anxiety and other problems with social functioning
  • Somatic, or physical health, problems such as headaches, stomach problems, and muscle tension

Many of these symptoms can be addressed through trauma-informed therapy. For some people, medication may also be valuable.

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